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The Protectors of the Dharma

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by Sangharakshita

... abodes. Now all the heavens of the Brahma gods, all the heavens of the plane of pure form, are inhabited only by masculine divinities, or if you like by angels, and they appear there, as it were, spontaneously, without the necessity of copulation or the process of gestation, without the necessity of parents. Now above the heavens of pure form with their angels are four heavens of the formless plane, inhabited by gods without form; and these collectively correspond to the dhyanas five to eight, that is to say the four formless dhyanas, or four formless superconscious states.

Now even yet we've not quite finished this rapid survey of the ancient Indian and ancient Buddhist universe. We must come down a little to finish it. In fact we must come down quite a long way, down to the heaven of the thirty-three, the heaven of Indra, that is to say 80,000 miles above the summit of Mount Meru. And in the air at this level we find the circle of the eight goddesses, that is to say the goddesses of sensuousness, garlands, song, dance, flowers, incense, lamps and perfumes. And they occupy positions, these eight goddesses occupy positions in the eight principal directions of space; and all are young and of beautiful appearance, and all of different colours - white, yellow, red, green and so on. And they all hold in their hands articles corresponding to their natures and their names. Then, immediately outside these goddesses, also suspended in the air in fixed positions, are the seven precious things plus the vase of treasure - in other words the seven most valued possessions of the universal monarch: the precious wheel, the precious gem, precious queen, precious minister, and so on. And then finally in the inmost circle, immediately around Mount Meru, are 1) the sun, with its chariot drawn by ten horses; 2) the moon, with Lecture 126: The Protectors of the Dharma - Page 3 __________________________________________________________________________________________________ its chariot drawn by seven horses; 3) the precious umbrella of sovereignty; 4) the banner of victory. And finally in the centre of it all, in the heaven of Indra, in the palace of Indra, is heaped up the entire treasure of gods and men.

Well, this is the universe, the universe as seen by the ancient Indians, including the ancient Buddhists. And as I said at the beginning, it's very different from the universe as we see it today. However, it has its own validity. I remember quite a few years ago, when I was in Kalimpong, I asked a Tibetan lama whom I met about this very matter, and the question I put to him was this. I asked him which he thought was true. I'd come to understand that he was studying Western subjects - English, arithmetic, geography. So I asked him which he thought was true, the traditional Indo-Tibetan picture of the universe, or the modern Western one.

He was a very young lama, in fact he was the reincarnation of a very famous Gelugpa lama, but his reply, though he was so young, was not only very cautious, but quite correct, I thought. He said, `The two pictures are both useful for different purposes.' I wouldn't like to comment on the usefulness of the modern Western picture, but there's no doubt about the usefulness of the traditional Buddhist picture, at least in the past, and at least so far as its own definite spiritual purposes are concerned. It's this universe which provides the cosmological background of the Buddha's teaching. It's this universe which is present, explicitly or implicitly, in the Buddhist scriptures, especially perhaps in the Mahayana sutras. And it's a universe which is certainly present in the Sutra of Golden Light. which is one of the reason why I've spent some time describing the main features of that universe.

In chapter six of the Sutra of Golden Light, for instance, which is the chapter with which we're mainly concerned tonight, the Buddha himself speaks of the whole triple thousand, great thousand world sphere, in which there are a hundred million moons, suns, great oceans, Sumerus, etc. And he also refers to the different classes of gods of the three planes of conditioned existence, all of whom are found in all the universes of that world sphere. Above all, however, the traditional Buddhist picture of the universe provides the symbolism, the concrete symbolism, on which is based a good deal of meditational and devotional practice, especially in the Vajrayana, that is to say in what is known as Tantric Buddhism.

One of the most important of all Vajrayana practices is what is known as the offering of the mandala.

Mandala means literally circle, and in this context it means the whole circle of mundane existence, the whole circle, the whole round, of conditioned existence as represented in the Buddhist picture of the universe. What the Vajrayana follower does is this. In the course of his devotions he builds up, he constructs, a three-dimensional model of the universe complete with Mount Meru, the four continents and so on; and this model, this model universe, he offers up to the Buddha, or more generally offers up to the guru, together with suitable prayers and suitable meditations, especially after receiving teaching, or after receiving initiation. After all, one has received the Dharma. One has received something which is infinitely precious, something that is going to transform one's whole life, so what are you going to give? You have received the Dharma, the Dharma has been given to you, so what are you going to give? Not give in return, but give because you feel like giving, because you feel so grateful. Clearly you are going to give everything that you possess, including your own life, your own self. Indeed, you feel that if you were master of the whole universe, you would give that, that you would want to give that. So this is what you do. You give the universe; you offer the universe. Because it's only by making such an offering that you can express what you feel. In other words, you offer up the mandala. For you at that moment the mandala is the universe; the universe is the mandala. So when you offer the mandala, you offer the universe. This is what the Vajrayana follower does.

But it's time for us to leave the Vajrayana follower. It's time that we got back to the four great kings, time that we got back to the four world protectors. As we saw, they live on Mount Meru. According to some accounts they live on or near the summit of Mount Meru. But according to other accounts they live on four subsidiary peaks half way up, or if you like half way down. And they stand fronting the four directions of space, north, south, east, west. And they protect the world against whatever dangers may be coming from those four directions. And in particular they protect the continent that lies in their particular direction. Each of the four kings is of a particular colour. Each is king of a particular horde of non-human beings. I may have something to say about the significance of this later on.

So let's take a look at these four great kings; let's try to see them, to imagine them as the ancient Indians, the ancient Buddhists, saw them or imagined them. First of all there's Drdharastra. Drdhrastra's name means `Upholder of the land', upholder of the country, and he's white in colour, and he's the protector of the eastern quarter. He's also king of the gandharvas, the heavenly musicians, and of the pisacas, or vampires. Then there's Virudhaka, whose name means simply `Growth'. He's yellow in colour, he's the Lecture 126: The Protectors of the Dharma - Page 4 __________________________________________________________________________________________________ protector of the southern quarter, and he's king of the pretas or hungry ghosts, as well as of the kumbhandas. Then thirdly there's Virupaksa. His name means `He of the bulging eyes' or `He of the wrathful eyes', and he's red in colour. He's the protector of the western quarter, and king of the nagas, the serpents or dragons, as well as of the putanas, or fever-spirits. Finally there's Vaisravana, whose name means `Greatly learned'. He's green in colour. He's the protector of the northern quarter, and king of the yaksas or sublime spirits, and of the raksasas, the flesh-eating demons.

Now all four kings are powerfully built, all of defiant mien. They all wear armour, and they're all often represented in Buddhist art. They're usually found inside the vestibule of the temple, either depicted in fresco on the wall, two on each side of the entrance to the main hall, or in the form of free-standing, often quite gigantic images. And it's these four kings, these four great kings, who now appear at the beginning of chapter six of the Sutra of Golden Light. They not only appear but they promise to protect the sutra, or rather they promise to give encouragement to those monks who keep the Sutra of Golden Light, and to protect the kings who patronise its promulgation.

So who are these four great kings? What do they really represent, and why do they appear in the sutra in this way, and what does their promise mean? Before trying to answer these and similar questions let us recall whereabouts in the sutra we are. Let's see how far we have come. You may remember from the first lecture that chapter one of the sutra is simply introductory. It tells us that we are on the Vulture's Peak, near Rajagrha, with the Buddha and a great multitude of deities of various kinds. Ananda asks a question, and the Buddha replies praising the Sutra of Golden Light. In chapter two we meet the Bodhisattva Ruciraketu. He lives in the city of Rajagrha and he has a problem. He cannot understand why the Buddha should have such a short life. However, the house in which he is sitting expands. It becomes made of beryl and adorned with precious stones. ...

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